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CD Review

Krzysztof Penderecki

St. Luke Passion

Izabella Kłosińska, soprano
Adam Kruszewski, baritone
Romuald Tesarowicz, bass
Krzysztof Kolberger, speaker
Jaroslaw Malanowicz, organ
Warsaw Boys Choir
Warsaw National Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra/Antoni Wit
Naxos 8.557149 DDD 76:24
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In this Lenten season – and given the furor over Mel Gibson's Passion of The Christ – a new recording of Penderecki's landmark St. Luke Passion is particularly appropriate. Since its 1966 première it has been recorded several times – not bad for a work by a composer who began his career a few years earlier on the forefront of the Polish avant-garde. Although some of Penderecki's devices are in fact modern (tone clusters, glissandi, extended vocal techniques, and the like), the St. Luke Passion is, well, passionately devout, and worthy of Bach in both its integrity and in its workmanship.

Penderecki himself has conducted his Passion, and recorded it most recently in the late 1980s. (This was an early release on the rejuvenated Argo label, which now seems to have been un-rejuvenated.) With this Naxos release, the Passion is available on a budget-priced CD for the first time. Wit, since 2002 the artistic and general director of the Warsaw National Philharmonic, has been making more and more of a mark in the past several years. (His Naxos recording of Messiaen's Turangalila Symphony was electrifying.) With this new Passion, he has triumphed again, and if you're going to get just one CD of this work, let this be the one.

Wit's Passion, recorded in the late summer of 2002, is the most emotional on disc. With the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe, one senses that artists are free to express themselves with an intensity that was impossible in the 1960s and 70s. In 1966, St. Luke's Passion must have been something of an affront to Poland's Communist leaders, not just musically, but also because of its religious content. (With Stalin and Khrushchev, they might have said, who needs God?) Today, that which was repressed behind the Iron Curtain is now expressed, and point that bottle elsewhere before you open it, because its contents are under pressure.

This fiercely committed performance is not compromised by any loss of control or accuracy. The singers and instrumentalists are frighteningly precise. Izabella Kłosińska, for example, aims her cruelly difficult lines at the listener with the skill of an Olympic javelin thrower. Kruszewski, the voice of Christ, sings his solos with telling simplicity and sadness, and Kolberger (the Evangelist) speaks the Latin texts with beautiful eloquence. The stars, however, are really the choristers, who must alternate between the horrific turbae – this is the pinnacle of human ugliness – and the anguished supplication of the faithful. Wit brings all of this together in a reading that is characterized by its persistence and inevitability, even though his tempos are quite slow. The engineering is state of the art, and Naxos even includes texts and translations. In short, this is an absolutely superb release, and no one with the least bit of curiosity should delay in acquiring it.

Copyright © 2004, Raymond Tuttle